The rise of Chinese microblog services like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo as a social phenomenon has been a common story as of late, but Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has stayed loyal to Twitter, which he calls his “favorite city,” as his outlet to the censorship he faces in Beijing.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Ai, a dissident who has suffered at the hands of the establishment, lamented Beijing as being “too simple” because it has just two types of people: ruthless, powerful types who can kick people out to build skyscrapers and “the silent people, who just have to bear it.”
No longer at home in his own city, Ai agreed that his life has mostly migrated onto the Internet and, more specifically, Twitter.
Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response. They know me better than their relatives or my relatives. There’s so much imagination there; a lot of times it’s just like poetry. You just read one sentence, and you sense this kind of breeze or a kind of look. It’s amazing.
Ai went on to say that the extra effort it takes to access Twitter is what “makes the city beautiful.”
The Chinese government used to be proud of Ai’s international success as an artist, even giving him the honor of collaborating on the design of the Olympic stadium in Beijing, but he has since fallen out of favor with them because of his unrelenting criticism of the establishment. In 2011, Ai was arrested and held for almost three months before being released with charges of tax evasion. Supporters attempted to raise money via domestic social media to pay his subsequent $2 million tax bill.
In June and July, highly suspect court hearings were held for Ai’s appeal of the tax charge. He was blocked from attending, and the appeal was ultimately rejected.
Earlier this year, Ai had a noteworthy tweet conversation with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who was visiting China on business. Ai challenged Dorsey to “make sure” that Twitter is accessible in China “sooner than North Korea has it.” For his part, Dorsey acknowledged that the lack of access to the service in the world’s most populous nation is “unfortunate and disappointing.”
In April, The Guardian published a an op-ed piece by Ai where he compared China’s efforts to control the Internet to building a dam higher and higher without releasing the pressure. In his view, freedom will win in the long run because the Internet is “uncontrollable.”
Image credit: Peter Foster